JERUSALEM — Yitzhak Rabin was a unique Israeli patriot who understood, at a late time in his life, what Israel needed to survive in the Middle East, and so Palestinians feel deep sorrow for what has happened to him. But Yitzhak Rabin was no friend to Palestinians.
In Palestinian eyes, Rabin was associated with the ruthless policy toward the young stone-throwers during the intifada: "break their bones." He is reputed to have approved the orders to kill a Palestinian Islamic leader just two weeks ago. Rabin once boasted from the Knesset podium that, as defense minister, he had deported more Palestinians than had right-wing Likud Party defense ministers. He is remembered for his refusal to honor dates agreed upon in the peace talks with the statement that "there are no sacred dates." Rabin's hesitation in the peace talks, his refusal to release Palestinian prisoners and his policy of repeatedly closing the West Bank and Gaza made many Palestinians question his desire for peace.
While Rabin didn't care very much about the well-being of Palestinians, he did have a vision for Israel as both a democratic and a Jewish state. He realized that for Israel to be a Jewish state and democratic, it can't rule another people by force. While he was Israel's Mr. Security, he also understood the limits of military power. His agreement to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization and to sign the declaration of principles with his former arch- enemy Yasser Arafat, stemmed from this basic realization.
I met Rabin in June, 1993, a few months before his famous White House handshake. I was the first Palestinian journalist ever to interview an Israeli prime minister. During that one-hour meeting, Rabin repeated that Israel didn't want to rule over another people. When I asked what he saw as the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he said that he would like to see a Palestinian entity connected somehow with Jordan.
Peace with Jordan, like that with Egypt, was not the problem. Israel needed and still needs to reach a historic reconciliation with the Palestinian people who have been gravely injured as a nation and as individuals by the creation of the state of Israel. If Rabin understood this, he hesitated to communicate it. He wanted to have peace with the Palestinians on his own terms, and in such a way as to bring the least resistance from the Israeli public. This hesitation played into the hands of Israeli and Palestinian extremists, who exploited it to the end.
Both Palestinian and Israeli extremists built their hate campaigns on the actions and statements of each other. Fanatic elements in Israel and among Palestinians were given a breathing space to mount a campaign of insults amid incitements from Israeli Jews and suicide bombings by Palestinian Islamists. When a fanatic settler opened fire at Muslim worshipers in Hebron in March, 1994, killing 29, the Islamic Hamas movement responded by sending a suicide bomber to kill Israelis in Afula. When a radical Palestinian blew himself up along with Israeli soldiers in Beit Lid, right-wing Israelis reacted by calling Rabin a traitor and agitating for his death.
This cycle of hate was not restricted to extreme elements. Mainstream Israelis and some American officials added to the frenzy. On the eve of Arafat's arrival in Gaza, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a large Israeli demonstration with a huge sign behind him that read "Death to Rabin." Likud members of the Knesset visited radical Jewish settlers in the West Bank and encouraged various poison-filled activities in opposition to the Rabin government. In the United States, while the Clinton Administration was trying to be helpful to all parties, political leaders were pandering to domestic anti-peace elements. Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and Rudolph Guiliani (among others) were encouraging anti-Rabin elements among American Jewry as well as Christian Zionist fundamentalists. The resolution by Congress to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the insult by New York's mayor to Arafat during the U.N. anniversary were played back in Israel, to the delight of the right-wing, anti-Rabin elements.
There is no doubt that this poisonous environment provided fertile ground for the assassin to carry out his despicable act, which proved the hypocrisy of Palestinian and Israeli extremists who feed on and benefit from the actions of each other. If anything, the brutal death of Yitzhak Rabin has vindicated Palestinian and international opinion about the danger of Israel's uncontrolled messianic/nationalist elements.